Loose nukes

by Ted on August 1, 2005

I recently criticized the New Republic, so I should point out that this week’s cover story is really very good. It collects the most forceful criticisms of the Bush Administration’s anti-terrorism program, and puts them into a larger framework. Scoblic argues that the Administration’s focus on regime change led them to target Iraq in large part because it was the least painful to overthrow. At the same time, their logic led them to de-emphasize, or even sabotage, efforts to reduce the threat from Iran and North Korea.

Unfortunately, regime change was not only the administration’s preferred end in Iraq, but its preferred means everywhere else, as well. If negotiating with evil regimes equals appeasement, then diplomacy to resolve rogue-state nuclear threats is out of the question. But, aside from military action, conservatism suggests few courses of action, and, with the bulk of our combat forces tied up in Iraq, forcible regime change was not an option in North Korea or Iran. So, not only did conservatism lead us to war against a nation that was not threatening us, it paralyzed us from dealing with those nations that were.

I don’t see that the faults that Scoblic identifies are endemic to conservatism as such- I could imagine a very different course, pre- and post-9/11, under a different Republican President- but it’s still worth the cover price. The critique of Bush’s approach to North Korea is especially maddening.

Scoblic points to the puzzling disinterest in securing Russia’s nuclear weapons. According to the Center for Defense Information (circa Jan. 2003):

To confront these proliferation threats, the United States has spent $7 billion since 1992 under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction programs, named for their founders, former Sen. Sam Nunn and Sen. Richard Lugar, (R-Ind). These programs have dismantled and destroyed troves of bombers, submarines and missile silos, consolidated and protected nuclear warheads, and paid the salaries of Russian nuclear scientists. Yet Nunn-Lugar has left large portions of Russia’s arsenal dispersed and poorly defended. Only 40 percent of Russia’s nuclear facilities have received security improvements, and the Russians have not allowed the United States to help inventory and protect their tactical nuclear weapons. Spending to find and control radioactive materials has only begun to have an impact.

The discovery of nascent al Qaeda plans to launch nuclear attacks and the arrest last spring of a suspect planning a dirty-bomb attack dramatically underline the urgency of improving non-proliferation efforts. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which initially planned to slash Nunn-Lugar funds, reversed course following Sept. 11, 2001, and agreed to increase the funding slightly to $1 billion per year. Even that level of funding is a far cry from the $3 billion annual allocation advocated by one blue-ribbon panel. 6 While this spending is significant, it is a small amount relative to other security programs. Missile defense development is costing the United States about $8 billion annually. Homeland security will cost close to $40 billion this year. Cooperative threat reduction spending, even if tripled, would amount to less than one percent of the $350 billion annual U.S. defense budget.

The grave threat of nuclear-equipped terrorists is obvious; it was a staple of proponents of the war in Iraq. I’ve long wondered why the priorities of the Bush Administration line up like so. Scobic offers the only explanation that I’ve seen:

Alas, even in Russia, the Bush administration’s focus on intentions has eclipsed the danger from capabilities. In the early ‘90s, Congress established and funded the Nunn-Lugar programs to dismantle nuclear weapons and secure fissile material in the former Soviet Union. After the September 11 attacks, one would have expected the administration to dramatically expand this program, since Russia, despite years of work under Nunn-Lugar, remained a potential Home Depot for nuclear terrorists, as a bipartisan commission chaired by Howard Baker and Lloyd Cutler put it in 2001. It did not. In fact, in the two years after September 11, Russia’s nuclear material was secured no more quickly than it had been in the previous two years. Why such tepid support for a program The 9/11 Commission Report said was “in need of expansion, improvement, and resources”? Because many in the administration continue to view Russia as a strategic threat. Michael Nacht, an adviser to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency during Bush’s first term, says that many Pentagon, White House, and intelligence officials believe Nunn-Lugar is “a subsidy to the Russians. … All we’re doing is freeing up funds that they would spend on [securing nuclear material], which they would then turn and spend on weapons programs.” Weapons programs, that is, that could potentially threaten us. Once again, the conservative impulse to prioritize a state’s intentions has prevented us from addressing its dangerous capabilities.

Oh. They think that skimping on Nunn-Lugar could retard Russian weapon development programs. And who can argue with that? If we had fully funded the program, the Russians might have nukes by now.

[ ] Laugh

[ ] Cry

(Matthew Yglesias has more comments, and different excerpts, here and here.)

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08.06.05 at 11:13 am



neil 08.01.05 at 4:25 pm

If US money for dealing with nukes was in reality just subsidisng the Russian military it’s hard not to ask why that money should not be going on dealing with nuclear weapons. If US money was being used to subsidise health and education then it would have some value.

At some point the US does have to ask the Russians to come to the party.


Kevin Donoghue 08.01.05 at 4:44 pm

Scoblic argues that the Administration’s focus on regime change led them to target Iraq in large part because it was the least painful to overthrow.

Decades ago I heard this kind of behaviour described as: kicking the cat to teach the dog a lesson. I’ve often wondered where that expression originated. Anybody know?


grahamc 08.01.05 at 5:40 pm

I think the adminstration is making apparent tactical blunders for a reason – it is following long standing US policy of starting wars with small countries for strategic reasons, most of which are domestic political. Draw smoke and mirrors over Iraq and the electorate will be fooled that major action is being taken, and criticism will get deflected. Meanwhile, quietly spend a little money going after the real threats and hope that it is enough.

Look at all the US wars and interventions since 1950. Arguably most were avoidable and achieved little apart from keeping the electorate focussed on short term “threats”. It could well be argued that the loss in Vietnam was a mistake – it was a small country apparently unable to possibly defeat the US. That’s certainly what General Westmoreland thought, according to his recent obituary in the Guardian. So it was a case of the usual policy going belly up.

Looked at this way, Iraq is just a continuation of normal US policy. And the real threats (as opposed to the invented ones) will have to get a lot more serious before that policy changes. It is just too useful to deliver a series of “victories” to keep the electorate reassured that they have been given vengeance and are still powerful and able to deflect any future attacks.


Dan Simon 08.02.05 at 2:25 am

At the same time, their logic led them to de-emphasize, or even sabotage, efforts to reduce the threat from Iran and North Korea.

No, their logic led them not to repeat a multi-decade Western pattern of capitulating abjectly to Iran and North Korea, in the vain, oft-crushed hope that somehow those regimes would depart from their long, rich historical records of rewarding such capitulation with even greater militancy and expedited nuclear development.

In fact, the Bush administration’s strategy with regard to Iranian and North Korean nukes has been quite sensible. In the case of North Korea, the focus of its efforts has been on getting all of North Korea’s neighbors to agree to put pressure on the regime in concert, to get it to dismantle, or at least curtail, its nuclear program. Unfortunately, China and South Korea have been uncooperative, and without their help, any attempt to wrest concessions from Pyongyang was bound to fail. Under the circumstances, then, it made no sense for the US to make any pointless deals that the North Koreans were sure to flout, just as they had flouted every previous one.

The American strategy regarding Iran, on the other hand, has been somewhat more successful, since it has gotten the Europeans to agree to consider the possibility of sanctions in the absence of serious concessions from Teheran. (Does anybody believe that anything softer than the Bush administration’s hard line would have wrung that concession out of, say, the French?) If the Europeans stay true to their word—no guarantees there—there might just be enough leverage available to prod the Iranians into some genuine, verifiable compromises.

Note that both of these strategic agendas included considerable multilateralism and diplomacy–but diplomacy with concrete goals and sticks as well as carrots. To TNR’s Scoblic, on the other hand, “diplomacy” obviously means unilateral concessions, in the romantic hope of receiving charitable treatment in return. (His touching concern for the sensitive feelings of the North Koreans–whom the Bush administration apparently “routinely went out of its way to insult”–and fury at the Americans’ stubborn intransigence in negotiations with Pyongyang are particularly laughable. Ditto for his hailing of the 1994 “agreed framework as “a superb example of coercive diplomacy”–which it was, except for the fact that the North Koreans happily took the loot offered them while clandestinely proceeding with the nuclear program they’d promised to abandon. If the 1994 deal was such a success, why are North Korean nuclear weapons such a huge problem today?)

Anyone with the slightest familiarity with US-North Korean or US-Iranian relations knows full well that the kind of conciliatory gestures Scoblic advocates would have accomplished absolutely nothing except the erosion of America’s bargaining positions elsewhere in the world. Scoblic’s fantasy of a conciliatory stance towards Iran and North Korea producing better results than the Bush administration’s hardline policies is just that—a fantasy with a long and bitter history of utter and complete failure.


Dave F 08.02.05 at 2:44 am

Paul Wolfowitz was asked at the time of the invasion why Iraq and not North Korea, and explained that Iraq was not amenable to other kinds of pressure because it had oil. North Korea, which has nothing the world needs, is susceptible to diplomatic pressure. Iran’s current brinkmanship on nuclear issues should give clearer indications of the Bush White House strategy two years on.


james 08.02.05 at 8:08 am

The accepted principle in this article is that the United States has a responsibility to secure another country’s nuclear arsenal. There is a reasonable logic behind removing a potential future threat. This is also the same kind of logic that leads reasonable US citizens to believe their government has the right to invade another country if they represent a potential future threat. Does anyone else find this at all ironic?


CKR 08.02.05 at 9:06 am

Interesting that so many of the commentors continue to miss the point.

1) We don’t want nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists.

2) After the Soviet Union dissolved, control of its nuclear weapons and materials was greatly impaired. This made it easier for terrorists to gain access to these weapons.

3) The materials for, and nuclear weapons themselves, are not easy to come by under other circumstances. Making them from scratch is a major industrial undertaking, not something terrorists are capable of.

4) Therefore, controlling nuclear weapons and fissionable material is one of the easiest problems in arms control and the clear choke point for keeping them out of terrorist hands.

It would seem, then, that this is one of the best targets for preventive funding. But, from the fall of the Soviet Union, the (largely Republican) faction in Congress that believes “We beat them in the Cold War, let them take care of themselves” has won out. You might think that they would see this as an opportunity to disarm an enemy for a pittance (a few tens of billions versus the several trillions it took to build the weapons), but their insistence on vengeance and retribution have overcome any self-interest in preventing terrorism.

Even if the Russians siphoned off an equal amount in graft, it would still be a bargain. Even if they put it into improving their weapons, many of which age into dangerous conditions and weren’t so safe to begin with.


C. L. Ball 08.02.05 at 12:31 pm

Bush non-proliferation policy has been ham-fisted and ill-articulated, but Neil and Dan Simon make fair points that critics fail to contend with.

If Russia is substituting US aid for its own spending on nuclear security, the US should reconsider the program. If it is true that

…the Russians have not allowed the United States to help inventory and protect their tactical nuclear weapons…

the the weapons the US would be most concerned about falling into terrorists hands are not being secured.
On the issue of “regime change,” if one believes that N. Korea, Iran, and pre-Saddam Iraq intend to continue with nuclear weapons programs, diplomacy is just a stalling tactic for both sides and changing the regime is the best alternative. In the case of NK, the Agreed Framework in 1994 failed to keep NK from pursuing a uranium enrichment program instead of plutonium extraction program while it did bolster the regime via economic aid.
For diplomacy to function, one must believe that a proliferating state would prefer an outcome in which it lacks nuclear weapons but has some other benefits. Which raises the question, why does the state want nuclear weapons? Many critics of the Bush policies appear to believe that nuclear weapons are substitutable for some other goods, but fail to explain why the states adopted a nuclear weapons program in the first place.

I actually think that the NK and Iranian nuclear programs are more defensive than offensive in nature (they want to deter attacks by other states), but that does not mean that they will be any more likely to surrender such programs than if they had aggressive designs. The Bush administration might be right that regime change is the only means to achieve non-nuclear states in some cases.


Elliott Oti 08.03.05 at 6:28 am

Dan Simon wrote:
“Does anybody believe that anything softer than the Bush administration’s hard line would have wrung that concession out of, say, the French?)”

What did they do, threaten to send the French ambassador to Gitmo?

Or is there some other way in which a hard line ostensibly directed at Iran can “wring concessions” from the French? (Sacnctions are “concessions”? Who knew.) Now that’s a novel idea. Threaten Tonga with annihilation and get the French to give up the CAP.


Elliott Oti 08.03.05 at 6:35 am

c. l. ball wrote
” For diplomacy to function, one must believe that a proliferating state would prefer an outcome in which it lacks nuclear weapons but has some other benefits.”

The outcome most proliferators are seeking is security. Absent hard guarantees of security (which, given the nature of such regimes as Pakistan, Iran and NK it would be unfeasible to grant anyway), and given continuous existential threats (Pakistan vs India, NK vs SK and the US, Iran vs Israel and the US) there is no incentive for such countries not to pursue proliferation and every incentive to do so.


Dan Simon 08.03.05 at 3:51 pm

Or is there some other way in which a hard line ostensibly directed at Iran can “wring concessions” from the French?

In case this is a serious question, the French would have happily forgone all prentense of sanctions against Iran long ago, nuclear weapons program or no, had the US not insisted on making nonproliferation a condition. Hence the US hard line with respect to Iran extracted a concession from France: a slightly harder line on France’s part.

The outcome most proliferators are seeking is security.

This is the oldest canard in the book: that aggressive totalitarian nations bent on external projection of power are only building up their military capabilities out of necessity, to shore up their own “security” against external threats. (Hopefully, I needn’t identify the obvious historical examples by name.)

It seems obvious to me that the single most effective step that the North Korean government could take to preserve its own security would be to negotiate a full peace treaty with the South. In the process, they could extract just about anything they wanted–aid, guarantees of non-belligerency, full recognition, and probably even partial demilitarization. Instead, they continue to proclaim loudly that the democratic government of South Korea is a US puppet regime, and that the Korean peninsula must be “unified” under the Pyongyang government’s rule. I’m fascinated to hear how this posture is in fact intended to buttress Kim Jong-Il’s “security”.

Similarly, I’d love to hear how the millions of dollars Iran is spending to bankroll and arm Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other Islamic revolutionary organizations around the world are contributing to Iranian “security”. Likewise for its open threats to bring about Israel’s nuclear annihilation. Even if the Iranian leadership believed your preposterous claim that Israel represents an “existential threat” to the Iranian regime, the obvious solution would be to make peace with Israel. It’s not as if Israel is awash in regional friends, after all. Nor has Israel been reluctant to make deals with Iran in the past–in the Shah’s era, for example, the Israelis were more than happy to trade arms for oil. Given this history, I’m again fascinated to hear how Iranian belligerency towards Israel is necessary for the former’s “security”.

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